Today, the Tennessee Volunteers and Kentucky Wildcats faced off in Thompson-Bowling arena not so much in a basketball game, but in a battle of wills. This was, paraphrasing the irrepressible Les Miles, big-boy basketball both literally and figuratively. Kentucky had a lot go against them in this game, but despite that, they out-toughed the Volunteers in what is undoubtedly the best game of the SEC season so far.
First of all, congratulations to Cuonzo Martin and the Volunteers for one heck of a game. They absolutely played this game to win, and although they did not, it was not for lack of effort or determination. There are no household names on this Volunteers team right now (although I think we can all see that Jarnell Stokes will become one), but they played very big and very tough. Well done, and expect to see Tennessee make some noise in the SEC this year.
For Kentucky, this was toughness that we have been needing. Offensive execution is still a mess, for some reason, but a lot of that can be attributed to the very sticky and tough man-to-man defense played by the Vols. The Wildcats were badly handicapped by foul difficulty, and at one point, I was very concerned about how Kentucky could defend Tennessee inside. But Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis began stripping the ball away from the Tennessee post players, and Kentucky got some separation. Despite missing free throws and giving Tennessee the chance to get back into the game (which they promptly did with a couple of threes), Kentucky managed to do just enough to hang on for a victory.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was once again the best player on the floor. He did it all -- made big shots, got big rebounds, made big steals, played big-boy basketball. His line: 4-11 from the field, 1-1 from distance, 12 rebounds (5 offensive), 8-12 FT, 3 steals and 2 turnovers. Game ball.
- Anthony Davis also played well. 18 points and 8 rebounds to go along with 4 steals.
- Terrence Jones was really good in limited minutes. He managed 10 points and 5 rebounds in only 24 minutes, a very decent line. He also played some outstanding defense and suffered from some unfortunately inaccurate and unfair whistles.
- I thought Kyle Wiltjer played well in limited minutes, although he did have some struggles against more athletic Volunteer players. Still, he is improving defensively every game, and he made a big three that really helped Kentucky's cause. 5 points, made all his shots both from the field and the line, and one rebound in nine minutes.
- Darius Miller made two pressure-packed free throws. He looked like a senior doing it, too.
- Marquis Teague made some great plays, and was also on the receiving end of an unfortunate couple of whistles.
- Kentucky, as a team, fought really hard in this game. It wasn't pretty basketball, but it was a physical scrum from tip to horn, and UK has struggled against teams inferior to Tennessee when they were in games like this earlier in the season.
- I loved that there was no panic in this team. None. They played this whole game to win, and even when things went sideways, they managed to hang in there and overcome it.
Less than superlatives:
- Darius Miller had an ugly game, made defensive mistakes, and did not shoot well. He made one pretty move and two great free throws, but I hated the way he played this game.
- Doron Lamb was nowhere to be found, and made several defensive errors as well. He also missed the front-end of a critical one-and-one.
- Kentucky has to learn how to play against bigger, beefier teams inside. This is just the beginning of those.
- Marquis Teague is still making a lot of very poor decisions. He has to become more effective running the team. 1 assist. 5 turnovers. Not the ratio you want.
- Is every single call this year where there is contact under the basket going to be an offensive foul on Kentucky? I have noticed a disproportionate number of those this year. I suppose Cal is going to have to adjust to that. Although most of them were justified, you think we'd get the benefit of a few, wouldn't you?
After looking at the stats, it's clear that Kentucky's defense won this game. On offense, the 'Cats just struggled to get anything done for the second game in a row. This offensive futility needs to be addressed, and that right soon. Darius Miller, in particular, is finding excuses not to be involved in the offense, and I don't like his game right now. Teague is also looking very inconsistent, and everybody is giving the ball away far too much.
But let's not blame it all on Kentucky. Tennessee had a lot to do with it, and arguably was mostly responsible for the play looking so poor out of UK's back court. The front court held it's own, and against the size the Vols were able to put on the floor, that's something positive.
By the way, did I not mention that Jarnell Stokes could affect this game? And he'll affect a lot more before this season is over. But this is a very good win for Kentucky. It's always tough to go to Knoxville and win, and this Tennessee team is really showing that they are under-appreciated.